‘Rick, you have cancer.’ What a wife and daughter want you to know about HPV

Rick Carlson

Jen Carlson

Rick CarlsonAugust 1993: Three cute guys moved into the apartment next door. Little did I know that I would marry one of them six years later. At a party in May 1995, Rick and I reconnected and were inseparable after that … well, almost. Rick died 24 years later of HPV-related tonsil cancer. We had a wonderful life together, living in Manhattan Beach, moving to Boston in 2000 for work, and returning to LA in 2003. Our daughter, Julia, was born in 2004. We had everything—two successful careers, a good kid, our golden retriever. We traveled and watched sports. We especially loved watching our daughter playing Rick’s beloved sport, soccer.

In January 2018, Rick developed a cut inside his mouth that would not heal. even after antibiotics. By May 2018, Rick couldn’t open his mouth wide enough for a burger. Something was wrong. Appointments ensued. The weekend of July 16, 2018, Rick showed me his CT scan results. I immediately saw the words squamous cells and tumors. I embraced him and said, “Rick, you have cancer.” Those four words changed our lives forever.

Jen and Julia CarlsonThe next day the doctor confirmed what we knew. Treatment started August 6—three rounds of chemo, 35 rounds of radiation. The side effects hit hard and within two weeks he couldn’t work and was exhausted. Our house became a mini-medical center. It was a brutal treatment, causing extreme mucus and trismus due to scar tissue build-up. He had a feeding tube and port for me to administer hydration. Rick was a big guy—220 pounds, 6’1—and lost nearly 100 pounds. He was so sick from the treatment, but it would be worth it, right?

In December 2018, we were told Rick’s tumors had grown back, just 90 days after treatment. He was terminal. When Julia asked what the doctor said, I told her the truth—that Dad was going to die. The next two months Rick sat on the couch in his “cancer cave” and died February 2019. Julia was 14. I picked her up early from school.

She asked, “Why are you here?”

“Julia, Dad died.” She collapsed in my arms.

We received an outpouring of support; people loved Rick. He got along with everyone and was generous and kind. He loved me, but Julia was his reason for living. She felt the same. They had a unique bond.

Julia Carlson and dogs Willson and CharlieFlash forward two years later. We still feel grief, a constant crushing in our hearts from missing him. If we had known that the cut in his mouth was a sign of cancer, where would we be today? If he had been vaccinated against HPV, would he have gotten cancer?

We will never know the answers to our questions, but maybe we can prevent other families from having the same haunting questions. Know the signs of cancers that can be caused by HPV, including oral cancer. Be your own advocate. Get your kids (girls AND boys) vaccinated against HPV—some HPV-related cancers are increasing in the U.S. and about 70% of oral cancer is caused by HPV.

Julia and I are resilient and are hoping that some good comes out of our story for others. If we can save just one life, our pain is worth it. Thanks for reading our story.

*CDC March 2021